Baltimore-based company's equipment helps empower Third World villages


While Atlantic Solar Products welcomes Maryland homeowners as customers, the company wouldn't be in existence if it depended on them.

The Baltimore-based distributor has prospered by being a jack-of-all-trades.

Remote power systems, used for African missionary camps and Latin American villages, are the company's mainstay.

But Atlantic also markets a variety of other products, including novelty items. One is a pith helmet with a small solar-powered fan, which has a suggested retail price of $40.

A glance through the company's scrapbook of installations shows that there are many more serious applications for solar power -- some of which you might never imagine.

For example, Baltimore uses Atlantic-supplied solar power equipment to run a couple of stoplights that were inconveniently located for grid power. And as many as half of the portable "arrow" signs used to redirect traffic are now powered by solar arrays and batteries, instead of diesel generators.

Being a jack-of-all-trades has resulted in an impressive volume of sales for a company with only 11 employees. Atlantic's president, Brent Atkins, who co-founded the company with Vice President Doug Keller, says the company will take in $5 million this year.

Working with Solarex Corp. of Rockville as well as Siemens Solar Industries of Camarillo, Calif., Atlantic has been involved in a number of village power projects, often funded by international aid organizations.

Village power typically means installing a set of panels in a remote village to pump water, to power a community television set and to provide light. This is an expensive market to reach, but it is one that both of Atlantic's main sources of solar modules -- Solarex and Siemens Solar -- are anxious to reach.

"Think about it. There are over 2 billion people on the planet that don't have access to electricity," says William Howley, chief of staff of Siemens Solar. "Without having access to reliable power, you can't have economic development. There's a direct link."

In a videotape promoting solar power, Siemens Solar quotes a farmer in Kenya who is using two solar panels attached to a floating water pump to bring river water to several acres of crops. If Western nations gave Third World farmers such equipment instead of diesel generators and trucks, he said, there would be no need for aid the following year, because Kenyans could feed them themselves.

By advertising in a wide variety of magazines, such as Home Power, Mother Earth News and even the magazines of religious groups that sponsor missionaries, Atlantic has picked up a good share of this business.

?3 Atlantic even offers discounts to missionaries.

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